The title of this post represents a question I’ve been chewing on for some time. I say that because of a mindset that seems to pervade contemporary evangelicalism that our corporate worship services must have some level of excitement in order to keep our attention. In fact, this is a question that I believe many Christian leaders ask in relation to their congregation – who can we make church interesting enough?
That’s not to say people go to church to be entertained. I wish we could dispense with this trite accusation. People can get entertained anywhere but I believe they attend church to get something more in search of something that satisfies the soul. That is true whether they are non-Christian seekers and believers in Christ. The problem is not in seeking entertainment but equating sensory responses with interest in church. If it’s not interesting enough or the music not good enough or if people aren’t lively enough, then it’s possible to equate that with an unsatisfactory church experience.
I used to have this mentality. I often reflect on the trajectory the Lord has had me on for the past decade or so, from radical to Reformed as I call it. The bulk of my Christian life has been spent in nondenominational churches with Pentacostal and Charismatic foundations. That meant a corporate worship experience should be one that engages all the senses and creates a sense of euphoric elevation equated with “God moving.” Lord forbid, you would leave the same way you came in. The worst thing a church service could be was boring.
In 2006, that began to change, as I indicated on my About page. As the discrepancies and inconsistencies began to unravel, I left the charismatic movement and church I was in, and ended up at a small Bible church. The services were more sedate than I was used to but a funny thing happened when the “energy” that I equated with necessary “spiritual” experience was stripped away. I could focus on what was being said, on the Scripture that was being read and the word that was preached. The music portion didn’t have the lively quality I was used to. But I found in that, I could focus more on the Lord and offering praises to him without the stimulus of environmental factors. I found this incredibly refreshing. A bonus: it was here that I was introduced to the discipline of theology.
I left there to attend seminary in Dallas and landed in a large (medium size by Dallas standards) Fellowship Bible church, which was very much like many contemporary evangelical worship services. The sanctuary was a former movie theater that was converted to a very modern looking auditorium style sanctuary, replete with a stage, video screens, cool backdrops and band instruments. It was pretty standard by contemporary non-denominational standards. The band was good and professional quality. You’d stand and sing several songs back to back, announcements, sermon, etc. Over time and despite the cool factor and decent teaching, I grew increasingly agitated.
While in seminary, I pressed in on an important question that would take my church trajectory even further. That question was this: what is the church and what is her purpose? The more I investigated that question not only from Scripture but also from the broader perspective of Christian tradition and history, I couldn’t help but observe how much contemporary evangelicalism was fixated on keeping people’s interest to the undermining and even detriment of providing the elements of worship that would provide people with Christ-centered nourishment.
This also led to an attraction to Reformed liturgy. The more I learned, the more I realized that cool and contemporary didn’t matter (it also helped that my theology was turning more Reformed as well). In 2012, I switched over to the PCA. As I wrote in Refreshment for the Soul, what I appreciate about Presbyterian liturgy is that it guides the congregation through the gospel itself. Yes, it’s an ordered service. There is no cool looking stage or overhead big screens. The worship leader is not the guy on stage who leads people through a battery of songs but who guides the congregation through a call to worship (call and response of a Psalm), corporate and silent confession, assurance of pardon through what Christ did on our behalf, confession of faith (usually a creed), prayer, giving a time of fellowship. Songs and Scripture reading are dispersed intermittently, which I think only adds to the richness of liturgy. By the time the sermon is preached, the heart has been so sufficiently prepared without all the bells of whistles of sensory stimuli but of the gospel itself.
But I’m also mindful of the fact, that many would find this plain boring. In fact, some friends visited with me one Sunday and afterwards commented on the sedate nature of the service indicating that they needed a bit more “umph” to maintain interest.
And that left me wondering why is worship that compels us to praise, calls us to repentance, relays the assurance of pardon, engages us with prayer, nourishes us with the preaching of God’s word and invokes fellowship of the saints not enough? Why is it that we have to have added features for it to be corporate worship that is good or interesting enough?
The Mortification of Spin team tackle this same issue in this recent podcast Re-inventing Worship. It’s worth the 15 minute listen.
Specifically, Carl Truemans says
God speaks to his people through the reading and preaching of his word. He delights to hear the singing of his people. The minister is to lead the people into God’s presence through prayer. The sacraments seal on our hearts the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. What more do you need?
Now I get that we are culturally conditioned and human. But I have to wonder if we are saying this is not enough to keep our interest if we are placing our interest, and possibly assurance, on the wrong thing. If the infusion of the gospel is not enough to liven our souls, then quite possibly that answer might be yes.
Having gone through the trajectory that I have, I can affirm that there is something to worship that engages the mind with the character of God and the work that he did through the Son on our behalf and empowers us now through the Holy Spirit. I actually get more out of following the words on a printed page as we go through the liturgy rather than looking for a feeling. I don’t have to seek a sensory experience because when my mind affirms this reality, emotions will follow. But engaging emotions to keep me interested will not necessarily engage my mind to reflect on this needed assurance.
Now, please don’t misread what I write here. This is not an indictment on church structure but on us and what WE expect from church. So I leveraged my own experience to ask the question, more than anything else. There is absolutely nothing boring about Jesus. So it seems to me that corporate worship that informs us of his goodness and our identity in him is good enough.